Thursday, January 04, 2007

Globus, Part II

In my previous post I discussed Globus and its India-inspired shopping theme. Here's another post from a few days later after I'd reflected on Globus's "Mumbai/Bombay" marketing campaign a bit more:

The whole idea of selling "India" bothered me, and I've had a little more time to figure out what it is that is so bothersome.

We happened to discover another Globus in Lausanne, so I picked up a copy of the Globus catalog. Actually, the catalog is more like a lifestyle magazine cum catalog. Amidst the product images and descriptions, one finds articles about Mumbai, for example, and recipes for Indian dishes. Following a recipe for Butter Chicken, there might be a picture of bowls for sale. Only these are not your typical department store bowls. Keeping with the Globus Mumbai/Bombay theme, the bowls for sale are made of banana leaves pressed into the shape of a bowl and then dried. Restaurants in India often provide these bowls to take away customers, and some street vendors serve up their fare in such bowls. Of course, Globus offers the chic urbanite from Europe the ability to purchase these bowls and then in the comfort of their own home eat from them the food prepared following the recipe Globus provides for "authentic" Indian dishes.

I bring this up again, and in more detail, because since returning to the U.S. we've noticed several other instances of "brand India" for sale. At least two of the catalogs Marion has come across here at my in-laws have whole lines of India-inspired clothing for sale. All of a sudden it seems that it's hip to be Indian. It's possible that it's been hip to be Indian for some time, and that we never noticed. Or perhaps we've become hyperaware of all things Indian outside of India now that we're back from India ourselves.

Either way, the fact that it's hip to be Indian irks me. Appreciating "brand India" is very different than having any sincere appreciation for the country, its cultures, or its problems. So when western consumers turn India into a lifestyle, I find it troubling on a number of levels. First of all, its not terribly hip for Indians to be Indian, at least not in the U.S. While in India, we talked to at least one Indian who left the U.S. after 17 years because he had found it inhospitable in the post-September 11 culture of fear.

Why would it have become inhospitable for him? Because the color of his skin leads Americans to the presumption that he is either (a) Muslim, or (b) from the Middle East, and therefore a threat. For an Indian in the U.S., in other words, there is nothing hip about having dark skin. Even within India it's not hip to have dark skin. Advertisements for sunscreen urge people to use sunscreen not to protect their skin from the sun's harmful UV rays, but rather to keep their skin light in color. India is still very much influenced by the caste system, and the upper castes tend to have lighter skin.

So I am bothered by the fact that "being Indian" is really only hip if you're not Indian. But more bothersome is the fact that, most likely, none of the more than half a billion Indians living in poverty are benefiting from the commodification of their lifestyles. I guess it's too bad that they never patented their traditional fashions, their stainless steel bowls, and their terra cotta chai cups, all of which are now for sale at Globus for sums 10-100 times what the same items fetch in India. Take the hip hop industry in the United States, at least here you have a model for returning a bit of wealth to a traditionally exploited and oppressed segment of the population through the commodification of its culture.

Now here's the kicker...Globus was founded in 1907 and is one of Switzerland's oldest retail stores. When I discovered this, I thought a little more deeply about the way in which Globus is exploiting India. The west, after all, has been doing this long before anyone ever heard of Globus. World's Fairs at the end of the 19th century were a way to expose people to the exotic ways and wares of other cultures (as well as to promote the glory of the host country). The British made the practice a science in the form of the British Museum, where everything from Egyptian mummies to African pygmies were put on display for the curious Brits to see.

I guess Globus prompted in me the question of where the line should be drawn between spreading cultural awareness and capitalizing on a culture's transient popularity in wealthy fashion markets.


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4 comments:

soulstirringexperiences said...

Dear Prof,
Hi, I just chanced upon your blog. Found it interesting too. I must say that ur knowledge of India is commendable. However I don’t know why I seem to sense a cynism or scarsm about India and Indians. Yes there are all sorts of people around. And also agree with you about being Indian is not really hip if you’re not Indian. However I think is due to the way India is still portrayed or past perception that seems to have become a reality about Non Indians.

By perception I mean is why is the stress still on Indian poverty alone or image of Indians being poor. Why are the intellectual minds working in top software companies in US conveniently ignored?

By the day I see more and more non Indians absorbed into Indian culture. Yoga and Indian spirituality seems to be taking control of stressed out non Indian professionals. Yet there seems to be a mockery made about Indian traditions and values like arranged marriages and dowry systems which with changing times have acquired awareness and there are Indians who take pride in India working hard to eradicate the same.

Yes for a lot of Indians, yet there is nothing hip about having dark skin. However our beauties who are not sheer beauties have the right mix of confidence, inner beauty and great appearances that not only boost them to participate on International platforms but also win them.

There is lot more that I can go on with …the point I am trying to make is yes we Indiand do have our flaws …and let’s face it every one does. We don’t hide them there must be a few exceptions who to gain acceptances in foreign lands seem to live a dual life and hypocrites. However there is lot to my country that I am proud. Right from the simplicity of rural India, to the intellect, to the rich tradition and cultural values, to the advancements it has made with time, to adapting itself to changing times and a lot more. I think that should be captured and expressed to all the people across the world.

I dnt know how much sense this made to you .. but I just felt like expressing my view on how I perceived the post.Hope it will be received in the right spirit!

Regards,
Payal

Professor Z said...

Payal,

Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I agree with most everything you wrote. If I seemed sarcastic or cynical in the post about "buying Indian" it was probably meant to be cynicism towards my own country of origin, and the voracious style of capitalism and consumerism that dominates it.

It's the American mindset, I believe, that sees everything as a potential commodity. Rather than trying to understand the meaning or value something has to the people who have created it, the capitalist mind sees only potential for profit.

As a Westerner with some modest experience in India, I struggle with a desire to preserve my own romantic notions of India and Indians while simultaneously acknowledging that India's future--one in which is known not for poverty but other achievements--depends on embracing changes that will most likely transform the romantic notion of India we in the West often hold.

Perhaps now I am not making sense. I do appreciate your taking time to comment. I know many Indians like you, especialliy right here in California where I live, who are fiercely proud of India, and with good reason. I hope it's people like them, and you, who are able to blend past and present in a way that reduces India's poverty problem and makes it a respected and appreciated country and culture in the world's eye.

Desi Italiana said...

"I bring this up again, and in more detail, because since returning to the U.S. we've noticed several other instances of "brand India" for sale. At least two of the catalogs Marion has come across here at my in-laws have whole lines of India-inspired clothing for sale. All of a sudden it seems that it's hip to be Indian. It's possible that it's been hip to be Indian for some time, and that we never noticed. Or perhaps we've become hyperaware of all things Indian outside of India now that we're back from India ourselves.

Either way, the fact that it's hip to be Indian irks me. Appreciating "brand India" is very different than having any sincere appreciation for the country, its cultures, or its problems. So when western consumers turn India into a lifestyle, I find it troubling on a number of levels. First of all, its not terribly hip for Indians to be Indian, at least not in the U.S. While in India, we talked to at least one Indian who left the U.S. after 17 years because he had found it inhospitable in the post-September 11 culture of fear.

Why would it have become inhospitable for him? Because the color of his skin leads Americans to the presumption that he is either (a) Muslim, or (b) from the Middle East, and therefore a threat. For an Indian in the U.S., in other words, there is nothing hip about having dark skin. Even within India it's not hip to have dark skin. Advertisements for sunscreen urge people to use sunscreen not to protect their skin from the sun's harmful UV rays, but rather to keep their skin light in color. India is still very much influenced by the caste system, and the upper castes tend to have lighter skin.

So I am bothered by the fact that "being Indian" is really only hip if you're not Indian. But more bothersome is the fact that, most likely, none of the more than half a billion Indians living in poverty are benefiting from the commodification of their lifestyles. I guess it's too bad that they never patented their traditional fashions, their stainless steel bowls, and their terra cotta chai cups, all of which are now for sale at Globus for sums 10-100 times what the same items fetch in India. Take the hip hop industry in the United States, at least here you have a model for returning a bit of wealth to a traditionally exploited and oppressed segment of the population through the commodification of its culture."


Steve, I'm suprised that you, as a white American male, are able to read between the lines, and notice the things that I as an Indian American rail about.

"As a Westerner with some modest experience in India, I struggle with a desire to preserve my own romantic notions of India and Indians"

Thanks for being honest and acknowledging things that others wouldn't for fear of not being politically correct :)

www.passtheroti.com

Gautham said...

But are you really any different than these people? Does your cursory experience with India somehow make your more fit to consume our culture? As an Indian, I would say not, and the presence of people like you just makes it easier for the others to continue to exotify us. Your romantic notions are just that, romantic notions, and have little to do with reality or anything else.